How Gilbert Became Bab (Part One)

Recently, I’ve been tweeting cartoons by W.S. Gilbert under the not wholly accurate hashtag #DailyBab. Why Bab? Because that was the artist signature that Gilbert used for his cartoons for the majority of his career. Thusly:

Gilbert’s cartoon for the title page of his “Bab Ballads” (1869)

The confusion begins, however, when I start to post images that use a different signature, such as this one:

An “initial” from Fun, 23 July 1864

At which point explanations start to become necessary: that Gilbert’s art started out with the signature “W.S.G.” but that he changed to “Bab” in 1865. But it isn’t even as simple as that…. Allow me to go into excruciating detail.

Gilbert’s career as an artist and writer began in or about October, 1861, shortly after the founding of a new comic paper, a cheaper rival to Punch, entitled Fun. As was customary, contributors were not named. This means that it is practically impossible to be sure of Gilbert’s first contribution to Fun, if it was written rather than drawn. However, we can be fairly certain that the following was his first published cartoon…

Gilbert’s first published cartoon: Fun, 26 October 1861

After a reverent pause to savour Gilbert’s first published joke, we may proceed to examine details. The signature is a monogram of the initials W S G (with a long S). Here it is magnified:

Gilbert was to use this artist signature for the next 16 months or so, before turning to a plainly written “W.S.G.” But we must not get ahead of ourselves; the excitement of that development is for later. Because in the meantime there is just one exception to the rule, and a vitally important one, for it is the first instance of Gilbert using the signature “Bab”:

The first Bab: Fun, 9 November 1861

In these first months of Gilbert’s time at Fun, he had the honour of drawing several of the paper’s full-page political cartoons, this being the first. The others used the WSG monogram: why not this one? After all, he was just starting out in his career, and to make his name or at least his initials known in the world… to be able to point to a comic paper’s standout political cartoon and say, “That’s mine!”… surely that would have been his ambition? Why did he call himself “Bab”?

Well, in the most limited sense the answer is well-known. “Bab” was apparently his childhood nickname, short for “Baby.” As to why for this particular cartoon, we can make a very probable guess. At this time, Gilbert was employed as Assistant Clerk (Third Class) at the Committee of Council on Education, usually known as the Education Office. His dates of employment there were: 24 February 1857 to 14 November 1862. (There has been some confusion over the years as to Gilbert’s dates of employment – it has sometimes been assumed he resigned his job before starting work at Fun – but the above are accurate, supplied by the Education Office’s pay ledger.)

Therefore, at the time he drew the above cartoon he was still an employee of the government department whose policy he was criticising. It is a very reasonable theory, then, that Gilbert’s use of “Bab” was not whimsical, but a very practical disguise to keep him from the wrath of his employers.

The first “Bab.”

As WordPress seems to be having a little difficulty saving what I have written, I will provide a short intermission here for tea and biscuits. Part Two will follow shortly.

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